Versions of North

By John Harris | November 5, 2011

Unsettled Settlers and Post-Colonial Colonists: Greg Lainsbury’s Versions of North. Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay,  BC, 2011. 88 pages. $16.95.



Lainsbury’s long poem consists of “versions” of the North, or “scenarios” as the individual poems are called. Together, they illustrate what he calls the “psychopathology” of North – North as a dysfunctional state of mind. South, in his view, is a similarly but less evidently dysfunctional state of mind.


An “important point of reference”, Lainsbury says, is William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, which, according to Williams, is “a long poem [written] upon the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city.” Williams personifies the city: “Paterson lies in the valley under the Passiac Falls . . . He lies on his right side, head near the thunder of the water filling his dreams!” And Williams objectifies his personified city as “modern,” seeing himself as representative of modernity.


Lainsbury doesn’t attempt personification as a structural device, nor much even as a figure. His long poem more resembles Wordsworth’s Prelude, which claims to illustrate “the growth of a poet’s mind” under the influence of natural settings. A major character in Wordsworth’s poem is a personified Nature (a “she” of course – to emphasize nurturing but also to leave room for an overriding “He”), but personification is not used structurally. The structural element in Wordsworth’s Prelude is an early form of behaviorism developed by David Hartley – the human mind as a kind of computer capable of progressive development in which Nature does the programming. Wordsworth spoke of the spirit that rolls through all things, including “the mind of man.” Lainsbury talks of “the forces” that “brought him to a particular place [North], and that have shaped the place where he finds himself.”


Wordsworth’s Nature is, like Williams’ Paterson, ultimately benign, not dysfunctional. The trouble with Wordsworth’s perspective is, as Coleridge pointed out, that he idealizes Nature and portrays the human mind as a passive recipient of Nature’s influence. As Coleridge well knew, the mind could convert the “natural” state of mind into negative states like, in Coleridge’s case, dejection. He wished that Wordsworth had delved into the pre-programming of Hartley’s computer (by the “He”) and/or into the other forces (a non-benign, non-human Nature) that must be involved in the programming.


Lainsbury actually attempts this. He sees North as his own dysfunctional state of mind: “The poem is both more or less than the ‘Idea’ of North . . .; it is, in the limited sense that is always ‘my’ sense, the embodiment of an uncertain North, weak and highly constrained by context.”


Ignoring the abstract and grammatically ambiguous nature of this statement, it sketches a legitimate ambition. Red Lane once described poetry as “introspection” of a special kind – “not from the outside looking in, nor from the inside looking out – more like from the inside looking inside out.” Lane used some analogies: “Surgery for the sake of surgery.” Or: “The hunter hunts in a circle and moves so swiftly that he comes up behind himself and shoots himself in the back – he falls, and cries ‘I’ve been murdered!’ Then he picks up his body, buries it and mourns his death. Then he goes out to hunt down his killer. He hunts in a circle.”


Sounds inefficient, but also very familiar. It’s a paradigm of induction/deduction, common sense, of which a good poem is, in my opinion, along with good prose and good science, an epitome. You arrive at a generalization that seems to explain a series of clear facts and then have that generalization killed by subsequent facts and resurrected in a new form only to be killed again. Gradually the generalization survives longer, and thus becomes more useful. The process fails when the thinker falls Narcissus-like into the infinity mirror of the Egotistical Sublime, into the production of images of himself, into “the still, sad music of senility,” as they said of Wordsworth. Generalizations are contrived to fit the facts, facts perverted to fit generalizations, and the thinking (the poem) gets moralistic and sloppy.


The opposite danger was courted by Coleridge: deliberate experimentation, with drugs, Platonic love, and/or theory, the latter featuring massive generalizations and omnium-gatherum, cherry-picking, “abstruse” research. Lainsbury is, like Coleridge, a self-confessed fucked-up polymath, and he can, like Coleridge, sometimes, especially when a good line or a promising idea pops up, be proud of it. He is also, like Coleridge, an attractive fuckup, candid at times, insightful, and comical in both what he says and does.


Lainsbury’s “Note on Text” for example, which postulates Paterson as a point of reference and describes the “Idea” of North also (Coleridge-like) anticipates and so seems to try to forestall objections. This is comical and also convenient for the reviewer, who doesn’t have to find flaws but has them listed for him. The poet, protesting too much concerning the unusual and therefore suspect features of his poem, accuses himself.


The first note in of this sort in Versions of North states that, “The poem began as a formal exercise in technique, the utilization of postwar cut-up technology to circumscribe the linearity of conventional poetic logic. Over the years I introduced a drafting process which included image-collage as the background to the emerging poem – the process of composition has been captured on video, which can be viewed on YouTube under glainsbu.”


No thanks. I found the poem too wildly associative, large parts of it incomprehensible, though regularly I crossed paths with excellent conceits and memorable phrases. Even though I’m inclined to think well of Lainsbury and to chance ingesting some shit because truffles keep appearing, I’m not inclined ascribe too much disconnectedness on the chance that a gestalt will emerge. I don’t do it in life, beyond occasional doses of wine and Viagra, and I don’t do it in reading and writing.


In fact I like to think that, through this review, I will be for Lainsbury a kind of visitor at Porlock, doing the same thing as the guy who awakened Coleridge from his laudanum-induced hallucinations to enquire as to where he was and thus ended “Kubla Khan” exactly where it should have ended. Or the “friend” who advised Coleridge that he should save the definition of “Imagination, the esemplastic power,” billed as the pivotal chapter of Biographia Literaria, for another book (as if that was ever going to happen), and to shut up about metaphysics and get on with his interesting autopsy of the long dead but still twitching corpses of Southey and Wordsworth.


Second, Lainsbury’s Note explains that “each mounting of the work is constrained by the technology of presentation. The work is first done on eleven-by-seventeen-inch sheets, and ‘reduced’ for chapbook publication to a seven-by-eight-and-a-half-inch page. Trade book publication has necessitated further work to fit the constraints of the page size made available to me by Caitlin Press. Thus my most observant readers will note that line breaks and spacing vary considerably in the various publications of the work over time, reflecting my interest in an improvisatory gestalt.”


In other words, line breaks and spacing play for/against grammar and logic as well as figures of speech, so there isn’t always an exactly correct place where they have to be. This is a legitimate point; it shows at least that Lainsbury, despite the bullshit about “improvisatory gestalt,” understands how lyrical measure works. In fact, I have taken him at his word when I quote him in this review, indicating line breaks and spacings only where they serve as a substitute for punctuation marks. I (as a logic-freak and failed poet) prefer my prosaic version. The fact is that if you happen to hear a lot of noise, as I did, you harbor a suspicion that you are not experiencing poems that are more than a summary of their parts. You suspect that you are experiencing parts, some of which may be noticeably better than the compositional whole. Given the choice—and Lainsbury gives it to us—why shouldn’t I make these attractive parts more attractive by punctuating them conventionally?


Third and finally, the Note lists some of the texts wherein Lainsbury indulged in those “abstruse researches” that tossed up the lines that make up the collage/gestalt. Coleridge’s “sad ghost” (as Eliot had it) appears again. In Biographia, the pivotal chapter on the “esemplastic power” starts with 20 lines from Paradise Lost, moves on to a paragraph (in Latin) from Leibnitz, to four lines of Greek poetry (in Greek), and to a summary of “Des Cartes, speaking as a naturalist and in imitation of Archimedes.” All of this wisdom, Coleridge then tells us, was condensed and epitomized by “the venerable Sage of Koenigsberg [Kant] in his essay on the introduction of negative qualities into philosophy.”


After a couple more pages of names and quotations in the lead-up to the definition of Imagination, with the reader confounded and confronted with having to read thousands of words in many languages in order to find the point, Coleridge’s “friend” mercifully intervenes. Coleridge takes his advice, and “Imagination” is defined in few words, the clearest of which are plagiarized from Schelling. If the reader needs more, Coleridge says, he can get that in an essay on the Supernatural soon to be prefixed to “The Ancient Mariner” – an essay that (you guessed it) was never written.


Coleridge lectured in the same way, and I imagine—having shared with Lainsbury the profession of college teaching—that he has done the same, avalanching students with quotes authored by people with foreign names and with lines from favoured poets. Coleridge’s lectures were popular, though again some of the best insights were plagiarized. The audience gave up on logic, picked up random insights, arrived at their own Gestalt, and went away inspired. This method is justified by us instructors by the fact that most students are smarter than (if not as well informed as) we are.


One of Lainsbury’s more abstruse speculations is that one of the “forces” that creates North, a “large” one, is Aristotelianism, a focus and dependence on reductive logic. It is identified in various ways in the poem: “Greek Abstraction” or “Aristotelian historicism,” or left-hemisphere brain activity (“thank goodness people’s right brains have been eaten by roboticized steel rats”), or “the chronic atomization of consciousness.” This force, as mentioned, exists in/comes from the South but is hyperactive/super-obvious/inescapable in the North.


In the course of this atomization, politics and economics are reduced to “the post-Nation-State logic of Capital” and into the “essential Satanism of Commerce” whereby “the old North becomes the New West.” Learning is reduced to “planning and producing customized learning-objects for the One Big College.” Community is experienced mainly in bars, under the influence of booze and drugs. Love is fractured into “dosing” and “contemplation” and talked out in the terms of “the Happiness Project.” “The aesthetic disposition” is shrunk into “the disinterested consumption of all manner of cultural objects for their own sakes,” “deconstructive method” into “the execution of unconscious inclinations,” and poetry into “the solipsistic dead-end of the Romantic lyric.” Of course all of these events happen in the South too, but again are more obvious and affective in the North.


On the physical landscape this state of mind, in the past, manifested itself as the network of ports, forts and interconnecting routes and trails that covered  what Lainsbury calls “beaverland.” Lainsbury lives in one of the forts, telling us that, “Fort St. John is the oldest European-established settlement in present-day British Columbia.” Pelts are no longer so important, but have been replaced by wheat, oil, gas, electricity and lumber. A web of rail lines, highways, transmission lines and pipelines now covers the land.


Presently the “Energetic City” is the BC nexus of the oil/gas boom and is a light-industrial wasteland with plenty of bars and motels and acres of trailers and mobile homes. The country surrounding it is scarred by clear-cuts, “the paraphernalia of oil and gas exploration,” and hydro dams with their festering (flooded without being logged) lakes.


The settlers are described as being exiled or incarcerated. The population of Lainsbury’s favorite bar is representative of “the Gulag:” “our inhabitants include: rig hands in doghouses/whole villages from Cape Breton/one who doesn’t know what a suntan is/the alcoholic driver & the catskinner/recent parolees from federal institutions/economic migrants from dying prairie towns/bars full of sad promiscuous & angry souls/they’re often really fat & their clothes too tight.” They project “the cowboy image: proud, aggressive, competitive, vain, maudlin, controlled and violent,” “living life without benevolence, destroying without malice.” They are “Proudly born & raised/flesh & blood local heroes” and they “gut it out in the corners/Thanatos reasserts himself with a vengeance: love of debauchery.”


Left-brain domination results in right-brain revolt.


While he can only tell us about the psychopathology of his fellow settlers, Lainsbury can show us his own psychopathology in the way he writes and what he says about himself. The perspective is first person mainly but regularly slips into the royal “we” and sometimes from the third and second persons as Lainsbury comically speculates on himself as an object or brings himself into over-cozy proximity to the reader: “are you radioactive, pal? Has you the night sweats & the day sweats, pal? Do you float on a silver stream of impunity?” Even though he sees the Romantic lyric as a dead end, he provides, as an “Intertext,” six such lyrics, and they are largely, indeed, as if to prove his point, dead.


He tells us that he suffers from depression, a condition that came with him to the North. “Taking medication for depression for 20 years allowed him to be productive.” He cannot maintain friendships or a family life: “myself can hardly stand to touch my person to someone else’s.” He chances wild experiments of consciousness — high idealism, maudlin romanticizing and mean-spirited cynicism augmented by booze and (prescription) drugs.


Not even Coleridge indulged in self-justification to the extent of Lainsbury does when he argues: “If one’s ambition is vulgar in its magnitude perhaps one should give oneself over to lying dissolute and melancholy on the ground? To be able, at least, to romanticize one’s situation, even if hopelessly infected with cynicism [is] a sign of mental health, however tenuous.” Thus the reference to the Gulag. It is insulting to suggest a comparison between those who really suffered and those who mainly just imagine they do, but Lainsbury is a troubled and desperate man who, in his weaker moments, likes to see himself as a victim of forces beyond his control. But he is also self-aware enough to treat his histrionic tendencies and outbursts with contempt.


And not even Hamlet indulged in such flights of procrastination: “In the wings struts the hero of sensitivity feeling like he wants to kill people all the time/this excessive, non functional cruelty demands an outlet/distinguishing idleness & work-preparation/job descriptions of an absurd future distracting children for a living/a poetics for depression . . . . Oh, to take leave of the past/gaily to trace/the thin gold of imagination/through a rocky mass of metrical gab/its ascendance measuring the recession of the dreams. . . . To be in all this/a moral lever/to prise open our own/condition: ruthless, savage & rigorous/conquering God & the old life/in a last struggle to attain/the grand style in Art. . . . Then comes the turn; the speaker’s identification becomes literal/ha! Drunk on virility/obsessed with rank/winged indecision/moving in terror from bar to bar/the lector with no method but ethos. . . . How can a man like me be expected to live & work under such conditions? Why cast all thou hast into the fire, of course!”


The attraction of this outburst is its quick-mindedness.


The “we” and “you” in Lainsbury includes not only Lainsbury himself, of course, and the residents of Ft. St. John and North, and the reader, but also “Tanya,” to whom, along with “Ezra” and “the girls,” the book is dedicated. She is described as “the district psychologist” and also as Lainsbury’s “ex-common-law” wife. He avails himself of her services, comically: “It is her job after all to make him feel better/but most of the things he thinks about are of no importance to her: genre as social action/corporate semiosis/an episode of the Lone Ranger [Is this Lainsbury himself?] involving a black widow [a neighbor of African extraction who has lost her husband in a gas explosion?]/hygienic governance & social morbidity/the apogee of the asset bubble/the fluttering of an anxious middle/(also she thinks he is stupid).”


Tanya is an alternative to North, obviously a difficult one. The dedication also features a line from Pound’s Cantos, “if love be not in the house there is nothing.” This could indicate that things are not going well between Tanya and her patient. She refuses the role of earth mother, engaging in “tough love,” yet she shares his take on things and understands his frustration. “So where is this world they are advertising?” she asks as they drive North “through a critique of emerging meaninglessness/an ethnology of death/transcendent bleakness of taiga/Swan Hills Waste Disposal Facility/a station of my Gulag Archipelago.”


Another refuge for Lainsbury is the land itself, physical Nature – trees, animals and land-and sky-scapes—noted in the old Wordsworthian vein as representing and sustaining an older, right-brain state of mind. And then there are the aboriginal peoples – but this, Lainsbury knows, is tricky. Are we saying they are more “natural,” that they haven’t degenerated into right/left-brain dysfunction to the extent that Second, Third, Fourth etc Nations have? Are we accordingly participating in the European idealizing and therefore trivializing of “the Red Man” as a paragon of simple goodness, as Rousseau’s “natural man?” Are we again creating caricatures like Pochahontas, Hiawatha, Chingisgook, Grey Owl, and Tonto in order to salve our consciences for having committed acts of physical and cultural extermination?


Aboriginal people force Whites to deal with what is actually to be done about an unacceptable situation. If you don’t like Aristotelian Capitalism, what do you like? The White traditional way of life (five acres and a cow) is unacceptable and anyway will likely lead us back to where we are; the Aboriginal traditional way of life is even less practical. The northern social worker, teacher, and medical worker goes out to “marginalized” native communities to “help” – to bring modern medical and counseling services and training – taking care (before teaching welding rather than cedar-bark weaving or summoning Medivac rather than the shaman) to pretend to have come out to “learn” – to spout pious remarks about the evils of assimilation and the superiority of Aboriginal medicine, astrology, justice, and community services.


As one of the “sensitive” settlers, Lainsbury sees himself as “inheritor of the truly original inhabitants/of the Americas.” But he knows that this is an attitude that Aboriginal peoples would likely regard as presumptuous and condescending. A tribal council might as an act of good faith adorn the Minister of Indian Affairs with a ceremonial head-dress, but doesn’t want him wearing it around Parliament Hill all the time, especially when stepping up to the microphone to announce yet another stupid policy.


Lainsbury describes “the imaging of Indians as self-perpetuating industry,” and admits that he finds it convincing only when stoned: “a chronic consciousness of crisis/that odd state of soul when the void becomes eloquent/concealing our labours/bringing us all back home to the time before the new Safeway/before satellite dishes disrupted suburban rooflines/to when Dunn Za [Beaver Indian] real people/whose events take place only after being experienced in dreams/their adaptive success dependent on skill & knowledge of individuals [he was stoned out of his brain but knew a good idea when he heard it].


Versions of North illustrates the pace of “Northern development,” its improvisatory, desperate nature, and the onset of the pathology it represents and creates. The poet, like the engineer, bureaucrat and oil-worker, has no time for anything but speed and no energy for anything but improvisation: “what is left/ when armed with only shrunken experiences & subservient languages of banality and despair/but to attempt to stitch together a work consisting entirely of quotations . . . ? So when thinking you are losing your head consider the long pome as feasible & culturally necessary! Or at least as sort of barricade ‘gainst their massive data structures’.”


This is the long poem as filibuster, obstructing Roberts Rules of Order and what Lainsbury regards as the “linearity of conventional poetic logic” in their task of creating banal legislation of both the acknowledged and unacknowledged kinds. I don’t buy the filibuster idea generally, but is a legitimate tactic under certain difficult circumstances and a way to begin resistance. And Lainsbury is inspired by good models of the long poem deriving from Williams and Pound through Olson and Ginsberg.


The first and (in terms of number of references) most important of these models is George Stanley, cited three times: “’this was once a city’ proclaimeth George Stanley to those assembled in the parking lot/‘this plastic rose’ now inscribed in our species-being a moment in the history of capital/a dumping ground for scum/a vanguard machine dragging humanity after it/hungry ghosts everywhere.”


Stanley is the source/confirmation of Lainsbury’s view of capitalism as an oversimplified and therefore polarizing and destructive way of thinking. Stan Persky, in a review of Stanley’s book At Andy’s (set in Terrace/Kitimat), says: “Stanley is one of the few poets I know of who consistently takes capitalism – its social effects and the difficulty of comprehending its dual character of blatant obviousness and invisible workings – as a necessary feature of his subject matter . . . . Stanley’s world is realistic, ordinary, and informed by an understanding of macro-economic causality.” Stanley’s poetry,” Persky goes on, “is capable of overcoming the ‘difficulty’ of talking about the ‘ordinary’ effects of capitalism: “One of the notable features of Stanley’s poetry is that his mind’s processing . . . of the phenomena he encounters . . . is always a possible partial subject matter . . . . The events in his mind frequently interrupt, short-circuit, or, as they say these days, destabilize whatever he’s writing about.”


And yet Stanley is a master of the ballad, the quip, the expressive anecdote and other forms of lyrical logic. His long poems (Lainsbury cites Vancouver, A Poem in particular) contain connected short poems and forego scattered spacing (most lines starting at left margin, some tabbed in the usual consistent indents). They exhibit a “narrative arc” and build a consistent characterization of Stanley as a person with a Zen-like acceptance/understanding arising naturally from his “destabilizing” intellect. You destabilize to achieve stability.


Lainsbury’s “Ghost-Town Elegies,” part 3 of Scenario 3, begins with this advice from Vancouver, Part 8: “And I’ll tell you – it’s no big thing anyway, to be a person, with a Kind of life, yet that’s what people are interested in . . . .” Stanley goes on in that poem to say that, for poetry: “That it be interesting/to others [is] a simple test . . . . Everyone wants to know/what you don’t know, or are afraid to know./There’s no need to make anything up.”


Lainsbury’s other acknowledged influence is Barry McKinnon: “Another key event in the development of a shift in my poetic practice from the short lyric to the long poem was my meeting Barry McKinnon in the fall of 1994; I had recently moved from Vancouver to Terrace, and Barry’s reading at a UNBC literary conference made a significant impression on me; his influence on my practice as a poet and on this particular project are profound.”


Lainsbury’s “line” looks much more like McKinnon’s than Stanley’s, though McKinnon’s has lately tended more to blocks of prose. McKinnon also exhibits North as a dysfunctional state of mind, but that dysfunction is revealed more psychosomatically than psychologically: “city, mind – body.” And there is no progression to insight and understanding, only decay and the desperate hanging-on to original values of family, friendship, love. As a character in his own poems, McKinnon is opposite to Stanley in that he doesn’t theorize and find thereby any sort of “vision:” “I can’t find the grammar machine – make no proposal.” He favors irony and his conclusions are totally un-Zen: “the city hates itself.”


Lainsbury’s third long-poem northern poet – in the sense that he comes north (to Canada) regularly in pursuit of shirt-tail ancestors and the whole history of the alien in “civilization” – is Cecil Giscombe.  Giscombe is merely listed in the “Note on Text,” so I place him last. He is the Wallace Stevens in the group, exploring dictionaries and encyclopedias as well as vast stretches of prairie and northern turf, seeking a language that doesn’t distort the reality of the alien – a language between “linear logic” and romanticizing rhetoric, between what Giscombe calls “reference” and what he calls “metaphor.”


McKinnon can’t or refuses to find the grammar machine. Stanley plays with it, usually in subversive ways, Giscombe studies it and puts it to use, moving fox-like between its two extremes. Lainsbury’s place in the pantheon of long-poem poets of North seems closest to Giscombe’s. But it is unique due to Lainsbury’s tendency to Coleridgean/Poundian “abstruse research,” something not evident in Stanley and McKinnon and pursued in Giscombe only in the more traditional fields of history and cognitive psychology. Lainsbury has a more conventionally academic approach to the psychopathology of Capitalism.


Since psychology is the way by which poetics connects with the other disciplines, Lainsbury, in developing his poetry, may have to go back—as a student if not as a patient or husband—to Tanya. I advise this though I suspect that he doesn’t need my advice. He did dedicate the book to her.


 4271 words November 5, 2011                                                                                                                                                                         



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